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June 2024
19min read


In 1916, when Margaret Morris was a little girl living in Washington, D.C., she lost her family and they lost her. First her mother died at the age of forty-one. Then her father, uncles, aunts, sister, brothers, cousins, and even grandmother vanished. This family cleaving left in its turbulent wake a frightened four-year-old who would become my mother.

She was raised by some distant cousins on her mother’s side. And although she married into a vibrant, large, welcoming family, she grieved for the people she had known so briefly. Some of that sorrow she passed on to me. She also passed on all the questions that those who are abandoned or adopted have: Why me? What did I do? Wasn’t I good, beautiful, sweet, or smart enough?


And so when I was twelve, I told my mother that someday I would find her family. I was determined that through me she would find out why they had left and what sorts of lives they had led. Through me she would finally embrace her only sister. I believed I could give her that most special gift—the gift of family. The mission became a fifteen-year quest, a successful journey through time, across continents, and over the gulf we know as race, for it was race that had precipitated my mother’s abandonment. Her vanished family had left her and deliberately set out to try their luck living as white people in a white world.

I began with the knowledge that my mother came from a background that included Irish, Italian, Native American, and African strains. But there were virtually no traces of color or physical traits that have traditionally been thought of as Negroid. All of her family looked like white people. They had fair skin, straight hair in shades ranging from blond to red, and eyes also of every imaginable hue. Her own mother’s eyes were said to have been gray.

What I subsequently learned was that her ancestors included English aristocrats, Scottish poets, and Virginia gentry. It had always been a certainty that my father’s genetic lines included African and Native American roots, but I learned that he too, like most black Americans, included the descendants of white European immigrants in his family tree. The family that I knew had dramatically enlarged, and it began to look like much of America. In the end I reconciled the two sides of my mother’s family, bringing them together across the deep, wide canyon we call race in America. In the end family transcended race.

There was another result. In January of 1994 Simon & Schuster published my book The Sweeter the Juice (whose title comes from the old African-American saying “The blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice”). It chronicled my search for my mother’s family and documented the life and times of six generations of my father’s family.

Once the book was out, letters began to arrive in a stream that grew to a torrent. By now I have received thousands, and they have revealed to me in the most intimate and moving way the extent to which our family’s experience is shared. “‘Gram, we got this kinky hair from someplace,’” one letter began. “My wife remembers her cousin making that remark to the cousin’s grandmother many years ago. At this point we still don’t know where or, more properly, who that someplace was, but reading The Sweeter the Juice has aroused my interest in finding out. . . . We hope that you will accept us as a couple more of your cousins. . . .”

The anthropologist Ashley Montagu was long an advocate of abolishing race as a concept. He never used the term except in quotation marks. Last year Dr. Luigi Cavalli-Sforza, a geneticist at Stanford University, confirmed that DNA is a potpourri of genes deriving from myriad ethnic sources. And Jonathan Beckwith, a microbiologist at Harvard Medical School, argues that scientists cannot measure genetic differences between the races.

Yet “race,” that socially constructed entity, was the reason for the breach in my mother’s family. Although the two sisters had the same parents and skin color, one lived all her life as a black woman, and the other lived hers as a white woman, keeping her black heritage a secret from her white husband, their only child, and their grandchildren. The sister was not alone in the choices she made. My mother’s other siblings and the rest of her family had also abandoned their race. They acted on the complexly simple infinitive “to be,” and in fact they “became,” they “were,” and their descendants still “are” . . . “white.”

Some would say these relatives have “one drop” of black blood, so they are in fact black. But except in Louisiana all of the “one drop” racial laws have been rescinded since 1986. So if you look white, marry white, live in a white community, attend a white church and a white school, join white associations, have white-looking children and grandchildren, you are “white,” as defined by the majority in this country.

Hundreds of thousands of blacks passed for white, starting in the days of slavery and continuing into the present. Because of the secret nature of the transaction, no records were kept of the exact numbers who created new places for themselves in American society. Population experts tell us that large numbers of black people are “missing.” I doubt they were abducted by aliens.

Hundreds of thousands of blacks have passed for white, from the days of slavery into the present.

According to Carla K. Bradshaw, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Washington, “Passing is the word used to describe an attempt to achieve acceptability by claiming membership in some desired group while denying other racial elements in oneself thought to be undesirable. The concept of passing uses the imagery of camouflage, of concealing true identity or group membership and gaining false access. Concealment of ‘true’ identity is considered synonymous with compromised integrity and impostorship. . . . If an ideal world existed free from the psychology of dominance, where racial differences carried no stigma and racial purity was irrelevant, the concept of passing would have no meaning. In fact, passing of any kind loses meaning in the context of true egalitarianism.”

In his history of the subject, Mixed Blood , Paul Spickard finds that passing has been going on in this country since the first contact between Africans and Europeans. He describes two distinct forms: discontinuous and continuous passing. Discontinuous passing is defined as being “white” only part of the time—on the job, for instance, at cultural or entertainment events, or in segregated facilities, such as schools, shops, and transportation. Continuous passing, as happened in my mother’s family, means a complete break with the African-American community. Such racial alchemy doesn’t happen without great emotional and psychological cost. Cutting oneself off from one’s culture, one’s family, and one’s community is tantamount to shutting oneself into a racial closet whose door is never securely locked.

This is not a subject that has received much attention in popular literature, perhaps because it is simply too unsettling. We saw it treated on the Broadway stage in Show Boat , whose most riveting character is Julie, the beautiful light-skinned mulatto singer married to a white man. Her racial “secret” is exposed, causing her to lose her marriage, her job, and ultimately her more privileged way of life. A few films, including Pinky, Imitation of Life , and, more recently, Shadows , deal with “white” heroines whose dark genetic pasts return to haunt and undo their lives. Of course millions of light-skinned blacks never have chosen to pass. And some have become national figures, such as the New York City congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., and the civil rights leader Walter White. For millions of others, however, passing has been a way to cope with the poisonous legacy of slavery.

Some geneticists claim that as many as 80 percent of black Americans have white bloodlines and that a surprising 95 percent of white Americans have some black ancestry. These statistics are based not on guesswork but on the direct clinical examination of nucleotides and microsatellites, genetic components common to all human blood. Dr. Luigi Cavalli-Sforza tells us in The History and Geography of Human Genes , the first genetic atlas of the world, just published by Princeton University Press, that all ethnic groups hold an array of overlapping sets and subsets of mixed gene pools. He notes that modern Europeans (the ancestors of America’s immigrants) have long been a mixed population whose genetic ancestry is 65 percent Asian and 35 percent African. There never has been any such thing as a “Caucasoid” gene. Nor is there such a creature as a “pure” white or black American. During recent hearings of the Senate Committee on Government Affairs on the Human Genome Diversity Project, Dr. Cavalli-Sforza and Dr. Mary-Claire King, a geneticist at the University of California at Berkeley, discussed the implications of their work. They called racism “an ancient scourge of humanity” and expressed the hope that further extensive study of world populations would help “undercut conventional notions of race and underscore the common bonds between all humans.”

Just from looking at archival records of my family, I know that every census has measured race differently. In different periods the same people in my family were listed as mulatto, black, or white. The designation could depend on the eye of the beholder or the neighborhood where they lived. In the meantime, their neighbors, their coworkers, and their communities at large saw them as either black or white, depending on who decided what. (Currently, a multiracial activist group is lobbying Congress to add a “mixed race” category for all those who do not wish to choose one side or the other of their gene pools.)

Because of the newness and yet somehow remembered, dreamed, imagined, or experienced familiarity of this story, The Sweeter the Juice has captured the interest of white and blacks all over the country. Thus the flood of letters and phone calls. Many of the callers begin their conversations with the phrase “I’m white, I think.” And with the letters come copies of old photographs, census documents, family trees, family secrets, and family confessions.

“I could have written your story,” many black people say. And I know that to be true, for what happened in my family happened in most black families. A woman who reported she was “in [my] mother’s generation” wrote: “Your family memoirs brought to the surface long-buried memories of incidents in my life as a Negro who could have chosen to ‘go over.’ I “recall seeine, only once, an uncle who went over; I also recall racial jokes and slurs made in my presence by ones who thought I was white. . . . One of the largest department stores in Pittsburgh hired me as the first black saleslady, unaware that a black lady had been working in its jewelry department for years.”


From the hills of Appalachia came a three-page letter with a bibliography and seven pages of genealogical charts. It began: “Allow me to say on the first line of this letter that I am a seventy-eight-year-old white woman who has lived in Kentucky all my life. ... I noted that your name was Haizlip and at some time your people had lived in North Carolina. As the enclosed chart shows, my husband’s grandmother was born a Haizlip and married a Morris from North Carolina. ... I was completely fascinated with your book and read it from ‘kiver to kiver’ in two days.”

Culver City is a part of Los Angeles where movie studios continue to crank out their versions of the American dream. From there a woman wrote: “I feel that I am probably somehow distantly related to you. Three of my four grandparents were of Irish ancestry. My mother’s grandparents were from County Tipperary, as was your great grandmother. . . . My mother says the name Morris was derived from ‘Moorish,’ which would suggest racial intermixture even before arrival in the New World. ... I would be very proud to have African blood in my lineage, and after reading your book, I now know that I probably do, since part of my family, at least, has lived in this country since colonial days.”

An eighty-nine-year-old woman in Lorain, Ohio, began her lengthy letter by saying: “My grandmother looked like any ol’ white woman. If she was or not, I have no way of knowing, but she had brown children and some light, straight-haired ones. In my own gang three of my brothers in the West passed for something other than black Americans. They married Mormon, at least two Mexicans, and they raised their umpteen children not black, but a few became curious about four years ago and started prying. We have met four of them, and they were as ‘happy as kings.’ The one nephew is a bigwig in the Navy as a white.” She signed it “your ‘Ohio Cousin.’”

I was the keynote speaker at the banquet my thirty-fifth reunion class held at Wellesley College last June. Before the dinner I chatted with my classmates and their spouses, children, and guests. A dark-haired, blue-eyed woman who had retained her college prettiness came up to me, giggling like a freshman. “You’ll never guess what my husband just asked me!” She laughed. “He wanted to know if you were Jewish. Boy, is he going to be embarrassed when he hears your talk.”

During my book tour across the country, hundreds of people volunteered stories about gaps in their identity. In Seattle an ostensibly white broadcaster in his sixties told me on the air that except for the color of his grandfather’s skin, he had always thought his grandfather had what he described as “Negroid features.” When he added that his grandfather’s first name was Washington, I said, “I hate to tell you this, but I never knew any white family that named its children Washington. That was always a popular name with black people.” Startled, my interviewer said he was going to check the census information on his grandfather in the next few weeks.

At a book signing in a Southern California shopping mall, an older woman with dark red hair and amber eyes bought the book, asked me to autograph it, and then said, “I understand this story, because it happened in my family. But it stopped with my father.” I was curious about this gene stoppage and intrigued by this woman’s unconscious denial of her heritage. “You see,” she continued, “I was raised white, but when I went to Texas for Founders’ Day in my hometown, I saw a picture of my great-grandmother for the first time. There was no doubt about it: She was colored. There was no way she could even pass for Indian. I was told she died after giving birth to my grandfather. Later my father was born, and nothing was ever said about his heritage. So everything stopped with him.”

Every census has measured race differently, and the same people in my family have been listed as mulatto, black, or white.

There are infinite ways of dealing with denial. Some are not subtle. In Boston I knew there was no balm I could offer the black man with freckles, green eyes, and blondish brown hair—the tightly coiled hair some call “rhiney.” Clutching my book to the middle of his chest as if protecting an ancient wound that would not heal, he told me that he remembers as an eight-year-old holding his mother’s hand while walking through St. Louis on a summer afternoon. An apparently white man came strolling toward them, and as the three drew close enough to see one another’s faces, the boy’s mother began to tremble violently. At that moment the man bolted and ran across the street. He sprinted around the corner and out of sight. At this point in his story, the book holder took a deep breath, clearly close to tears. “My mother, who was also light-skinned, had turned red and was crying silently as she looked at the corner where the man had just vanished. ‘That was my brother,’ she said. ‘He’s passing, and I haven’t seen him in twenty-two years.’ That was their last encounter. I never saw him again. But I will never, ever forget the deep pain and the tears on my mother’s face.”

Chicago welcomed me during 1994’s coldest weather. Only a little less frigid was the greeting from the media aide assigned to me during my visit, who met me at the airport. This young woman quickly informed me that she had graduated from Princeton and that her father and grandfather also had graduated from Princeton. I thought surely that she would add that her greatgrandfather had founded Princeton, but she didn’t. On my second day, however, her personal freeze began to thaw. She said excitedly that she had begun reading my book and had just discovered that she was probably related to me. “How’s that?” I asked. “Well, I see that you are related to Martha Washington, and so am I, so I guess that makes us distant cousins.” She continued, “When I told my father about it last night, he was excited until I got to the part about your being black.” Then he said, ‘Maybe this explains that lost branch Aunt Suzie hasn’t been able to find.’”

The themes of these tales create a story quilt of repeated patterns. And between the patches, strong connecting seams began to emerge. From a city slowly recovering from racial paroxysms, a Los Angeles resident wrote: “Our families are so similar. Like yours, we are racially mixed, predominantly European (Irish) and African. And we too had many members who passed for white. . . . To have America confront the fact of black genes in the white population, as you have done, is also therapeutic. Why should a person, on learning he has black ancestry, feel distressed about it? And why should the person in question face betrayal from associates who learn of his black heritage? Thank you for your contribution to racial healing.”

A black Detroit woman suggested she felt ethnically liberated: “It validated my right to wonder and even to discuss my multi-ethnicities. Like you, I am proud to be a black American, but why should that mean I have to deny what is not black? Most black Americans descend from at least one white relative, yet many blacks are offended when one discusses anything but one’s blackness. You have announced, ‘It’s OK.’”

Obsession is often the word used to describe the American fascination with race. Just as I wondered all my life about white people I thought might be related to me, so too did this black woman: “Growing up in central Virginia, I often wondered which of the white people I knew as neighbors were related to my black family.”

One letter said, “To confront the fact of black genes in the white population is therapeutic.”

And a black woman from Maryland wrote to me about the time she first learned about passing. “I must have been about ten years old when one day our doorbell rang and my mother told me to answer it. Standing there was a tall, pale man with gray eyes and thin blond hair. He asked for my mother. ‘Mama, mama, there’s a white man at the door looking for you.’ My mother went into the door and then led the man into the parlor. She called me in. ‘This is my brother and your uncle Ted,’ she said. After the visitor had left, she told me that her brother was living as a white man in another place and could come to see us only every once in a while. I don’t remember ever seeing my uncle again.”

Frequently citing the phenomenon of “Passing for Gentile,” Jews have responded to The Sweeter the Juice in similar ways. My mother accompanied me to a signing at a bookstore in an Orange County mall. Sitting on the floor was a cherubic, curly-haired young woman who immediately brought to mind romantic images of a European Gypsy. When she spied my mother approaching behind me, she jumped to her feet, grabbed my mother’s hand, and began sobbing. My mother, who wears her emotions just under her skin, also began to cry. Seeing this stranger and my mother hold hands and silently weep, I, too, began to cry. There we were, a mother, a daughter, and a woman unknown to either of us, wailing as if we were professional mourners at an Irish funeral. Finally the young woman cleared her last sob and poured out her story.

She had grown up a member of the only Jewish family in her small town in Orange County. Pained by the prejudice she experienced as a child, she decided never again to reveal her Jewish heritage. She would become a Gentile. She straightened her hair, bobbed her nose, changed her name, and left both Orange County and her Jewishness behind. But, she told my mother, the break did her more harm than good. She recanted her choice and returned to the bosom of her family and her religion. She could not “pass” any longer. Touched by the sorrow that passing had brought to my mother’s life and to her own, she had come to the mall to tell her so, face- to-face. She cried, she said, for the pain they both knew.

From Dallas, Texas, came a haunting letter to which I keep returning: “I was particularly interested in your book because of my own life. I grew up in New York. My maiden name was Myersen. [The name is changed here for privacy.] When you grow up in New York and your name is Myersen, you are asked several times a month if you are Jewish. It was seldom an ugly question. It was just informational. The answer to this question was ‘Oh, no. It is an old Danish name. Jews spell it “O-N.” We are Danish.’ In 1983 my mother told me that she discovered a letter indicating my father’s family was Jewish (Danish Jews). I have been dealing with the amputation of my heritage and recovery of my heritage since 1983. I will become a Jew in a formal ceremony quite soon.”

A Harvard Ph.D. living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, wrote, “Your book raised such basic issues about identity. . . . After we move from our own personality and reality that we take from our genetic makeup, our family, our marriage, work, et cetera and move into the community to which we think we belong, how much is intrinsic, and how much is imposed from the external world? It is hard for me to rely on genetic contributions from my ancestors as supporting my identity, perhaps because I can trace my background back only two generations on one level and almost six thousand years on another. Because Jews were expelled from so many countries and continents in their history yet lived all over the world and intermarried with every population, physical appearance is meaningless to identity. One has only to go to Israel to see this. ... We all are linked through history and common belief. Should that not be the linkage between all of us, regardless of our skin color?”

I met one young blonde, blue-eyed, fair-skinned woman who said she didn’t know she was black until she was twelve.

In the Point Loma section of San Diego there is a vast bookstore that has been converted from one of the city’s vintage theaters. Bordered in triple rows of Caribbean-colored neon light bars, the curving Art Deco marquee bore my name as the guest author. In this arresting setting an equally arresting, elegant pale woman with large gray eyes and a croquignole wave pressed her business card into my hand. On one side the print read, “Ethnic hair specialist.” On the other, a quickly scribbled note: “I will call you to tell you my story.” And call she did, the next day. As an adopted child she had always wondered about her ethnicity because she did not feel she was either black or white. Just this year, she said, she managed to have her adoption records unsealed and saw for the first time a picture of her long-dead mother: a teenage Jewish girl who had conceived an out-of-wedlock child by a young black man. The girl’s family prevailed on her to give the child up for adoption. In the file was a letter from the mother saying that she wanted to reclaim her baby. She never did, seemingly because of the daunting adoption process at that time. She later died in a mental institution. Speaking in a near whisper, the daughter ended the conversation, “You don’t know what it meant to me as a grown woman to see my mother’s face, to touch her handwriting, to learn that she really did want me, and to know about my mother.” I knew.

Back in Los Angeles, I had an urgent telephone message that a young woman had to speak with me immediately. When I returned the call, the woman told me that she had not known she was black until she was twelve years old. Her hair was blonde, her eyes green, and her skin fair. All her family had passed for white in San Diego. And that’s what she had assumed she was until the day she found an old family scrapbook with some yellowed photographs of people who were clearly brown. She asked her parents about them. Her mother refused to discuss the photographs or anything related to them; her father admitted they were relatives but said he had left “that life” behind.

At seventeen this girl went East to meet some of her dark relatives, and upon returning to the West Coast, she decided, she said, to “embrace her blackness.” She was the only member of her family to do so, although the rest of her siblings had been informed of their heritage. Now the director of a large and flourishing human-service facility in Watts, the expansive African-American neighborhood in Los Angeles, she stays in touch with her family but lives across the color line.

How would the book be received in the heart of Dixie? I wondered a little nervously while being driven to a radio interview on the far outskirts of Atlanta. The small-scale station occupied the second floor of a two-story boxlike building. My interviewer, a heavyset, jovial middle-aged man in a short-sleeved shirt, eyed me with a curiosity that matched my own. Yes, I thought, he does fit my image of a good ol’ boy. Now what?

I sensed it was important to establish common ground quickly. I told my radio host that I had just visited another beautiful Southern area, Hertford, North Carolina, in the eastern end of the state where my father was born. “By jiminy,” he drawled, “I don’t believe it! That’s where I’m from. Isn’t it truly God’s country! Now don’t tell too many people about it, because we want to keep it small and secret. By jiminy! I knew I was going to like you.” His interview was straightforward, with no blind curves or cul-desacs. When it was over, I asked him how he thought white Southerners would respond to my story. “Well, Shirlee,” he said, “we’ve all known this for years. Some of the ol’-timers may not like to see it in print, but what the heck, it’s all part of that devilish thing we call history.”

I think there is a sea change. It is surely a new day when white Americans will look at their nonwhite roots.

Early one Saturday morning the graceful Southern voice of an elderly man told me was sorry to interrupt my weekend privacy but he had just finished my book and could not wait until Monday to talk with me. He had called directory assistance for my telephone number.

Since regional accents often disguise race, I couldn’t tell whether he was black or white. He wanted to know more about the Halyburton side of my family, which he had researched and said he was related to, thus making him distantly related to me. I was pleased to be able to supply him with facts about two Halyburton generations of which he had no knowledge, dating back to the late 1600s in Scotland. After we had talked a bit, he told me how close he felt to various aspects of the book, because, like my father, he was a Baptist preacher.

I asked him what he called himself.

“My family is mixed like yours, and I think of myself as a mulatto. I know I had two black aunts, but somehow we got whiter.”

“What does your community call you?” I queried.

“Oh, white, of course.”

“And your congregation?”

“My congregation is white.”

The minister told me that he lived in a small town in the Blue Ridge Mountain area of North Carolina and that he was going to preach about my book on Sunday. I would like to have been in that audience.

It comforts me to think there is a sea change in America. It is surely a new day when white Americans are willing to look at their roots and find that some of them are possibly colored. Perhaps some of us are beginning to do what one anthropologist suggested would be the first step in eliminating racism: separating our need to belong from the dangerous temptation to hate others.

I doubt whether these letters would have been written even five years ago. I doubt if strangers would have been calling and talking softly about these most private aspects of their lives. It has buoyed me that all the response so far has been positive, open, and curious. And perhaps the ultimate reconciliation came in a letter from a white woman in a small town in Illinois. She wrote of the man I had discovered to be one of the progenitors of my family, a white Virginia judge who sired and raised my great-grandfather, Edward Everett Morris, a mulatto slave. “One of your ancestors, James Dandridge Halyburton, is my husband’s great-great-grandfather. Should you care to correspond with us, we would be delighted. I truly enjoyed your book and am glad that I have found another part of the family.”

Recently, Pat Shipman, a paleoanthropologist and the author of several books on evolutionary biology, wrote: “We all agree that we will face the truth together. . . . We have only one joint fate, and we must create it together.” At the confidences shared and the secrets disclosed I am not surprised. In America I believe there is now a profound need, a deep preternatural yearning to connect—to feel related, to be part of that special group we call family.

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